For God's Sake, Don't Mention the War!

How the Beltway Debates an Issue March 21, 2008 by Werther 

It has long since come to universal notice that Time and Newsweek, the Coke and Pepsi of weekly print journalism, have slid to the level of what were once considered lowbrow publications like People and Entertainment Weekly. Needless to say, these latter two journals threaten to assume the Darwinian niche previously occupied by the lamented Weekly World News. So where does a reader of more elevated tastes seek enlightenment?

Many people who aspire at least to a middling rung in the American establishment would instantly reach for The Economist. No doubt its editorial line would soothe the prejudices of the ruling class, both senior and apprentice, for its hectoring monomania about free trade suffuses every leader, article, and book review the magazine has ever published. It is also British, a real plus for our Anglophile proconsuls in training. Its only failing is that it lacks an insider's knowledge of the workings of the American governmental machinery.

That deficiency is corrected by two publications that are little known outside the Capitol Beltway: the staid, magisterial Congressional Quarterly and its slightly breezier cousin, National Journal. [1] Aficionados of how the government sausage gets made – from conference committee reports to OMB circulars to federal acquisition regulations – grit their teeth and pay the stiff subscription fee for the wisdom they impart. They give the kind of in-depth political coverage lacking in their more down-market journalistic counterparts. But they also share a characteristic with Time, Newsweek, and all the rest of the conventional-wisdom brigade: a propensity to frame issues in a manner that reinforces the status quo.

A salient example of this reflex is the 15 March, 2008 National Journal cover story, "Burned Out." It posits as an emergent "crisis" something everyone with the remotest knowledge of U.S. military programs has known for years: that the Air Force's inventory of fighter aircraft has been falling in number and rising in age, to a current fleet average of over 20 years.

The reason is self-evident: in the 1990s, the Air Force bet the farm on the F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter (now the F-35) and, instead of spending money on brand new F-15s or F-16s, plowed the money into the exorbitantly expensive research and development effort to obtain the next-generation aircraft. The service deliberately burned its bridges behind itself in the tacit assumption that regardless of the complications inherent in the new generation of aircraft, the taxpayer would come to the rescue. In other words, the Air Force front-loaded its outyear budgets with a couple of programs whose costs were vastly understated and whose schedules were grossly optimistic.

But "optimistic" may not convey the actual motivation of Air Force budget programmers. Some officers in the World's Most Expensive Flying Club may have genuinely deluded themselves about the technological issues inherent in developing third-generation stealth aircraft. But more likely, the cause was a pervasive cynicism that the taxpayer would always be there to bail out the program, and that by eliminating an insurance policy, the Air Force could truthfully tell Congress "there is no alternative." [2]

The National Journal glides over this history in considerably more delicate fashion: "The Air Force, by contrast [to the Navy], bet all of its chips on stealth. Disappointed by the handling and maintenance problems of its F-117 stealth fighter and B-2 stealth bomber, the service invested heavily in a 'third generation' of stealth that would combine radar-evasion with high-agility aerodynamics, supersonic speed, and manageable maintenance."

But the author never unpacks the hidden arguments and assumptions in that bland narrative. If the Air Force was "disappointed" by the handling and maintenance problems in its previous stealth aircraft, where was the analysis to show that these problems could be solved at an affordable cost in a third generation of stealth aircraft?

Second, the figures the author blithely accepts as the so-called "flyaway" (procurement) costs of the F-22 and the F-35 – $122 million and $51 million each, respectively – are ludicrous. According to the Government Accountability Office in a current report [pdf], the average procurement price for the F-35 is calculated at $104 million each – more than double the unit procurement price claimed by National Journal. And the F-22's flyaway cost is more plausibly represented by a Congressional Research Service estimate of $185 million each. Thus, the Air Force's cost problem is in aggregate nearly twice as bad as claimed in a magazine read and believed by Beltway insiders.

The only way one could remotely posit such low flyaway costs as posted by the National Journal is by assuming those would be the ideal unit costs that might be achieved at some utopian level of "efficient" production that would be impossible in practice to achieve. Or perhaps the Air Force now perversely defines flayaway cost as a euphemism meaning "without engines or cockpit instruments."

But beyond that – and deeper than that – the National Journal article accepts as a given that the Air Force needs advanced fighter aircraft, and the question inevitably devolves into how many, on what schedule, at what cost, and what do the mandarins in the Air Force staff, Capitol Hill, and the think tanks opine about it?

Absent is any discussion of Fourth Generation Warfare – the kind of warfare that any plausible adversary is highly likely to engage in if faced with fighting the U.S. military; a mode of warfare that this country faces now in two significant conflicts. In Fourth Generation Warfare, the adversary avoids the staggeringly expensive stair-step of radar/electronic countermeasures/stealth/counterstealth by simply declining to play the game, and for a convincing reason: he is usually broke and doesn't have an air force, anyway. But a $50 road-side bomb or a sufficiently well-motivated suicide bomber can deliver ordnance every bit as accurately as a $380-million F-22. ($380 million is the unit acquistion cost: a far better measure of what the taxpayer actually pays for each aircraft, since it includes a pro-rata share of sizable research and development expenses).

Another factor in the Air Force's "crisis" that the National Journal neglects to mention is the fact that the service is exacerbating its aging and maintenance problem by having to fight two wars of a type it would prefer not to engage in. Rather than grappling in the central blue with a more worthy foe (one with a combat air arm, and one which would obligingly pit its weakness against our strength), the Air Force is reduced to the pedestrian if relatively safe business of hauling loads of ordnance to undefended Third World targets while supporting ground forces. Helicopters may face measurable risks from ground fire in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that risk is close to negligible for any tactical combat aircraft, be it a paid-for F-16 or an F-22 that costs more than what J.P. Morgan paid for Bear Sterns. [3]

By not purchasing good-enough aircraft, and instead mortgaging the country to the mirage of affordable stealth, the Air Force set the pattern for a procurement train wreck. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have merely accelerated the arrival of that problem by requiring intensified flight time (in more rugged in-theater conditions) on a declining inventory of aircraft.

One would think that the dubious suitability of pie-in-the-sky stealth aircraft for the real-world wars the U.S. government actually chooses to indulge in, and the accelerated depreciation of Air Force assets as a result of those wars, would be key topics in any discussion about future fighter procurement. Yet the article in the authoritative National Journal does not mention the words "Iraq" or "Afghanistan" once.

It is almost as if the media gatekeepers took the advice of John Cleese's comic character, Basil Fawlty: "for God's sake, don't mention the war!" The service procurement staffs certainly would rather not mention it. The Army would rather get on undisturbed with its $160-billion Future Combat Systems – although one is constrained to ask, what does FCS prime contractor Boeing know about building tanks? The Navy would prefer to get away from this silly brown water nonsense in the Shatt-al-Arab and get back to re-fighting the Battle of the Philippine Sea with its $5 billion-a-piece DD-1000 destroyer (does anyone remember when destroyers were called tin cans?). And, as we have seen, the Air Force is still planning to sweep the skies of MiGs above the Fulda Gap.

And so it goes with the rest of the establishment. At the good, gray Brookings Institution, the great budgetary minds of Washington are assembling at the end of this month for a conference about the federal government's long-term deficit problem. The notice for this event, titled "Taking Back our Fiscal Future," warns about the fiscal time bomb of "Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid – the major drivers of escalating deficits ..." [emphasis added].

Do any of the eminentos at this conference – who include three former directors of the Congressional Budget Office – know or care that military spending has grown at a higher rate than Social Security since 2001, and is now at a higher absolute level than that social insurance program? Ah, but only if you count the war. And for God's sake, you must not mention the war.

[1] I am focusing here on publications which report on newsworthy happenings across the U.S. government, not the hundreds of special-interest publications which cover only narrow aspects of it.
[2] If that sounds vaguely like extortion, the F-22 actually played a central role in a real case of extortion. The only time the aircraft faced a serious challenge from Congress was in 2000, when the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee boldly zeroed F-22 procurement in its annual funding bill. Eventually, the funding was restored, and most observers chalked it up to the usual log-rolling, combined with Congress's deep-seated fear of actually canceling a major weapon system. In reality, Jerry Lewis (R-CA), the chairman of the subcommittee, zeroed the F-22 at the behest of his buddy, Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Incarcerated), so as to pressure the Air Force to grant Cunningham's briber, Brent Wilkes, a $10-million contract increase. The F-22 funding was quickly restored once Wilkes got his money.
[3] The risk might not be negligible if the mission were ground strafing, in which case the pilot would want to be protected by armor and inherent air frame ruggedness. The only aircraft in the service inventory that meets those criteria is the A-10, a cheap, subsonic, 30-year old design the Air Force has been trying to get rid of for almost two decades.